Newsweek Magazine must still be smarting. Back in 2002, as Signs was gearing up for its box office assault, the publication called M. Night Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg”. Aside from the bald audacity of such a claim (is there ANYONE working in Hollywood who can truly stand toe to toe with the man responsible for so much masterful popcorn fare?), the Indian born filmmaker had only made three films previous. Sure, The Sixth Sense was very good, and Unbreakable perhaps even better, but even the writer/director dismissed his first feature film, Wide Awake, as a failure. Still, many found the periodical’s claim to have some minor merit. With what he had accomplished in such a short time, Shyamalan looked like the real deal.
Now he looks like garbage. The Happening, which hits theaters this weekend, is destined to go down as either the kitschiest camp trick ever played on an audience by a former A-list filmmaker, or the last gasp in a career downward spiral so massive that Trent Reznor would be jealous. It takes a bad b-movie ideal, dresses it up in fancy framing and composition, and asks us to believe in its Bert I. Gordon goofiness. Even worse, it doesn’t appear that Shyamalan is simply having a laugh. Pre-publicity has commented on how the director is excited to give fans his first “R-rated” horror film. In interviews, he seems to genuinely believe that this will be a solid scarefest. Clearly, Lady in the Water wasn’t the only delusion this non-autuer suffered from.
With a plot that’s premised on the end of the world, one would assume that Shyamalan’s vision of the Apocalypse would be a bit more - impressive? Having massive groups of people suddenly pause and play a fatal game of statues barely satisfies the genre mandates. We need to see social chaos, the breakdown of order, shock inducing spectacle, and the resulting death and destruction. Certainly we get some initial killings - the “virus” that attacks the Eastern seaboard of the US causes mass suicide - but aside from a sequence where a construction site becomes the place for a series of lemming-like leaps to the ground, all the throat cutting and wrist slashing seems anticlimactic and quite silly.
Even worse, Shyamalan goes with his ludicrous ideas and never once looks back. There are moments in this movie where characters are actually afraid of…wait for it…the wind. Not hurricane force gales mind you, or poison laden zephyrs. No, there is a calculated consensus on what is causing the “event” and so scientific theory (supported by Mark Walhberg’s high school teacher) maintains they make like scared rabbits whenever a light breeze blows by. In a narrative overloaded with seemingly unintentional laughs (our hero has a heart to heart with a plastic plant, The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” is channeled to prove someone’s “humanness”), Shyamalan saves the best/worst for last.
Betty Buckley, the brash Broadway diva who would be Patty LuPone if only she could muster up the same elephantine ego and sense of self, is a last act addition as a psychotic old lady loner who views the trio of survivors darkening her run down farmhouse door as nothing short of the Manson Family. She freaks out when they whisper behind her back (the subject of the conversation - how paranoid and peculiar she is) and ends up adding an American Gothic like gravitas to what is basically Food of the Gods for botanists. By the time our heroes head out into the open fields to face their hay fever styled fate, we are beside ourselves with laughter/spite. The tagged on ending in France only adds to our amuse/bemuse-ment.
Now, there are some who might suggest that this kind of material rarely succeeds. Trying to show how the standard human being buckles under pressure and predicates the destruction of its own existence en mass has forged some fine attempts (Stephen King’s Cell) and some abject failures (1985’s Warning Sign). Of course, you can extrapolate out the premise and come up with some clear cut classics. After all, everything from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Day Later is founded on the frightening prospect of people turning on each other - either for food or anger-inspired fun. True, The Happening is more about self-destruction, but there are still enough post-apocalyptic precepts involved in the story to suggest its placement within this category.
So within such a set up, why does The Happening stink so? Clearly, Shyamalan is one source of creative conjecture. We live in a hard-R macabre marketplace, so-called ‘torture porn’ teaching the fright fan that nothing satisfies like blood…and lots of it. Yet all the deaths in this movie are handled in an old fashioned, almost made-for-TV fashion. CSI offers visuals gorier than anything seen here (with the exception of a surreal man vs. lion showdown at the zoo). Even worse, Shyamalan forgets that threat is key to suspense. The characters must literally fear what will happen next - and we in turn must sympathize and identify with said sense of dread, less we disconnect from all the sequences of drawn out danger. The Happening, unfortunately, does none of this.
Oddly enough, this week also sees the release of the sensational indie effort The Signal. Unfairly slammed as being a rip-off of King’s aforementioned 2006 novel (anyone whose read the book and seen the film understand the glaring differences), this amazing movie, the work of three different directors, each one helming one act of the narrative, tells a tale of technology run amuck. When we first meet Mya, she is having an affair with Ben. He wants her to run away with him and escape her possessive husband. Typically, she can’t do that. So when she returns home to face his jealous accusations, it’s the standard post-modern kitchen sink dramatics - that is, until her spouse, Lewis, picks up a baseball bat and beats in the head of one of his friends. Soon, the whole city comes unglued, the citizenry randomly attacking and killing each other in extreme and very violent ways.
What we eventually learn is that a ‘signal’ buried inside all electronic appliances - TVs, phones, radios, etc. - is altering people’s brain chemistry. Tricking them into indulging in their worst, most primal desires, aggression and death rule the land. In the end, we follow Mya as she makes her way to a secret rendezvous, watch Ben as he tries to meet her, and see the cuckolded Lewis go on a rampage similar to such spree killing brethren as Jason Voorhees and Mike Myers. All the while, directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry mix enough humor and horror into the storyline to keep us laughing and leery, frequently at the same time. More importantly, they manage to out think and out imagine Shyamalan, someone noted for their thoughtfulness and inventiveness.
Indeed, The Signal slams The Happening down onto the ground and forces it to scream “Uncle”. Everything that Shyamalan gets wrong, Bruckner, Bush and Gentry absolutely excel at. Both movies take a similar narrative approach - tell a small story in such as way as to make it resonate within the larger scope of a Judgment Day dynamic. Each one uses a city setting to establish the terror, and then takes the concept inward. Each one features feuding couples (Walhberg and his woman - Zooey Deschanel - are having some minor marital strife) and both offer up innocent victims as fodder for mindless, murderous fiends.
So why does The Signal work whereas The Happening merely hobbles along? The answer starts in the realm of vision. Shyamalan may think he’s got a handle on his man vs. nature nuances, but to look at his film you’d never think the world was ending. It’s too bright and sunny, events occurring in open spaces with lots of light to illuminate the nonsense. It’s the reason the Buckley material stands out so. Even in a previous visit to an unoccupied home, our survivors appear dappled in well placed illumination. In Bruckner, Bush and Gentry’s world, everything turns tainted and dark. Hallways looks institutional and unkept, the streets of Atlanta (where the movie was made) as foreboding as any dystopian Hell.
Even better, our outsider filmmakers only had digital cameras and $50K to work with, so they had to be inventive in other areas. They use gallows humor and some surreal sequences of crackpot character interaction to soothe us over the rough spots. Shyamalan just manages to piss away over $57 million to make this future flop and everything about it feels redundant and forced. He’s not really doing anything different than what the makers of drive-in fare attempted back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Indeed, The Happening is one of those movies that goes a long, long, LONG way to achieve very, very little. At least The Signal sticks with its premise and doesn’t try to pontificate or change the dynamic into something akin to an environmentalist’s screed.
Yet it’s the notion of intent that probably best describes the reason for both film’s final assessment. Our trio, taken with the way in which humans act with their world wide wired habitat, never lets the populace off the hook. In The Signal, we are responsible for our technological addiction, and the fatal results of same. In The Happening, we appear as innocent victims to some incredibly cheesed off foliage. Clearly, based on how badly he bungles this film, M Night Shyamalan is not the next Spielberg. He’ll still work in today’s Hollywood, but whatever luster he had will be forever tarnished and severely tainted. Of course, he will probably consider himself a victim of a critical community incapable of containing its biased, jealousy based vitriol. In this case, the Fourth Estate is the least of his worries. Any audience member unlucky enough to see this movie may have their own Signal like reaction to what he has to offer.